Though this paper dates from the 1960s, it is a reprint of an original design by Charles Rennie Mackintosh created in 1916. It was made for W.J. Bassett-Lowke, founder of a manufacture of model trains and construction sets, for the lounge hall of his house Derngate in Northampton. Mackintosh was an architect and designer known for his interiors, which he often designed with his wife to be a complete work of art, and at Derngate, his last major domestic commission, he created the stenciled wallpaper and murals for every room. This particular wallpaper was considered too stark and was taken down in 1920 at the request of the owner and replaced with a wallpaper deemed more pleasant on the eye.
The owner’s reaction is in many ways completely understandable. This particular section of the sidewall is the upper section, the frieze. The checkerboard stripe, continuing vertically the entire height of the wall, would be the only other decoration on the otherwise completely black wall space. The stark effect of the paper can be seen in contemporary photographs and even more in the modern-day restored interior and demonstrates why Mackintosh’s particular version of Art Nouveau was often seen in his own day as severe and off-putting. The group he formed with his wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances, and his friend Herbert MacNair was even called the “Spook School”, though this was as much for the slender, palid women of the MacDonald sisters’ art as it was for Charles’ restrained, geometric style. The group, also called the Glasgow Four, was much admired in Germany and in Austria by the Vienna Secession, and Charles exhibited at the Secessionists’ exhibitions in 1900. Mackintosh’s geometric style was in many ways similar to that of Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and other designers in the Secession and the related Wiener Wërkstatte. This wallpaper, developed late in Mackintosh’s career, lies at an extreme in his style and demonstrates the stunning modernity achievable in his brand of Art Nouveau.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.